Dig, Lazarus: The Bible in Modern Lyricism
Tom Cushing | On 05, Sep 2015
It’s a strange truth of modern rock lyricism that when secular songwriters draw on the Bible the results can be truly transcendental.
The injection of Christian themes into rock and roll is a well known recipe for creating some of the most cloying, mawkish music imaginable. When a religious movement tries to co-opt a musical style for the express purpose of evangelizing, there isn’t a lot of room left for artistry. But when the reverse happens, and an artist in complete control of their medium uses religious language for poetic purposes, we can end up with something like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Or Bruce Springsteen’s blistering Adam Raised a Cain. Or pretty much Nick Cave’s entire discography. Songs about lust, murder, rage and countless other earthly emotions that use the archaic beauty of biblical language to elevate their stories.
Released in June, Craig Finn’s single Newmeyer’s Roof finds its protagonist “in the bathroom/doing my best to ascend” while running around with his friend Doubting Thomas. Much like Finn’s work with The Hold Steady, the lyrics completely ignore any instructional or moral lessons in the Bible. Instead, he populates his world of junkies and dreamers with warped versions of biblical characters, allowing evocative contrasts to emerge out of the mingling between the religious and the depraved. When Doubting Thomas and the protagonist watch the Twin Towers fall from a friend’s rooftop, the two struggle to make sense of their personal philosophies in the aftermath. Thomas immediately sees it as an “inside job” cynically claiming that “the more you destroy/the more that you make.” The protagonist meanwhile takes solace in the smaller things simply noting “We always want more, but we get what we need,” even though he’s got “nails in my hand/blood in my eyes.” It’s a simple story of the personal struggle between hope and despair that uses the Jesus/Doubting Thomas archetypes to explore emotional spaces familiar to all of us.
It’s a style often used by lyricists with a tendency to make grand artistic statements, like punk rockers Titus Andronicus, who sing about the depressive experience as a short trip from cradle to crucifix in Joset of Nazareth Blues, saying “Until you hang upon such a cross/ You won’t know a thing about laughter or loss/ From Galilee to Gethsemane to Golgotha/ Is a short short walk”. It’s a way of taking an inherently earthly experience and elevating it to a sisyphean level of suffering.
The Mountain Goats, favorite band of literary geeks everywhere, have used the opposite approach, reinjecting life into Biblical stories that have long since taken on the baggage of myth. In their 2009 album The Life of The World to Come they took Bible verses and converted them to secular stories. In Psalms 40:2 (Bible verse “He brought me up also out of a horrible pit… and established my goings”) two junkies blaze their way down the freeway “drunk on the spirit and high on fumes… We feel bad about the things we do along the way/But not really that bad.” By stripping them of their religious context, these stories are allowed to stand on their own. You can rest assured there’s no evangelical element when it’s sung by the band who’s most iconic song urges listeners to “Hail Satan.”
In the same way Greek myths have inspired iconic narrative works (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Warriors, The Wire), the Bible is a mythical playground for modern lyricists. From fire and brimstone to suffering and forgiveness, it’s clear that some stories never die. Or if they do, there’s always a chance they’ll be raised from the dead.
Image Credits for feature image: Kate Griffin